by James Anderson
The Dalai Lama in “Ethics for a New Millennium” suggests that there is an important role for critical thinking – i.e. reason and logic – in avoiding harm:
“Skillful means can be understood in terms of the efforts we make to ensure that our deeds are motivated by compassion. Insight refers to our critical faculties and how, in response to the different factors involved, we adjust the ideal of non-harming to the context of the situation. We could call it the faculty of wise discernment.” (p. 149)
I know of no more reliable source regarding compassion and “harm” than the Dalai Lama. His emphasis upon wise discernment as an essential factor in compassion is worth noting. Compassion is more informed than the “Harm Principle” seems to be. A “caring” response to an addict, without the use of wise discernment, might be to alleviate their immediate suffering by giving them another fix. Wise discernment would provide a longer-term perspective. Short-term “harm” might be necessary in order to get the addict into treatment and healed from their addiction. True compassion, a more thoughtful and difficult path, would require dealing with the rage of the addict at the refusal to meet their immediate needs.
During the election of 2020 my neighbor had a prominent “Trump 2020 MAGA” sign in his front yard. This sign initially caused me emotional distress. This “emotional distress” fits the idea of “harm” proclaimed by the “Harm Principle.” But I soon recovered from that “harm” with the realization that he had every right to put up his sign; I live in a society where people have the right to free speech even if it causes emotional distress in others.
I don’t want to live in a society where I am protected from all emotional distress. I want to be part of a civil society that allows me and my fellow human beings to distress each other by their ideas and opinions, and to debate and decide, through wise discernment, what would be the most compassionate course of action. This requires tolerating a certain level of emotional distress and being unafraid to cause it in others.
I also live in a society of justice and laws. My neighbor may have the right to cause me emotional distress by putting up a sign, but he does not have the right to paint the same message on the side of my house. And this may be a way to distinguish “harm” that should be tolerated from harm that should not; the dividing line between putting up a sign on his property and painting the same slogan on the side of my house does offer me some clarity. I am offended by both actions but one I must tolerate in order to live in civil society, the other is not tolerated.
Those arguing for a “Harm Principle” claim that in trying to form a “beloved community” there should be stronger protections against “harm” than in general civil society. They seek to create a compassionate, loving space for people with marginalized identities. Yet, as the Dalai Lama says above, compassion requires “skillful means” and the use of “our critical faculties.” People of any identity tend to dislike being treated in a patronizing manner as if they were children and needed protection from ideas that might upset them. A “covenantal” beloved community should also follow the Dalai Lama and use their critical faculties and wise discernment, and avoid substituting patronizing sympathy for informed compassion.
“The changes say that while freedom of conscience and freedom of speech are still important, they are not our highest priority. We must finally also acknowledge the harm they can and do cause, hold each other accountable for that harm, and stop the actions that cause harm.”
– Rev. Jill McAllister
Setting up “harm” as “our highest priority” was most likely envisioned by well-meaning people who wanted to prioritize caring and empathy over other less “loving” virtues. This may explain why logic and reason, as “hard-hearted” values – “cornerstones of white supremacy culture” – came to be regarded with suspicion; the Harm Principle originated in order to “side with love” against the other “side,” which is, apparently an “unloving” side.
If this is the case – if “harm” is established as the highest priority – then it might be worthwhile to establish some agreed-upon definition; what it is and how to avoid perpetrating it. But without appeals to wise discernment and some form of critical thinking, it is hard to see how such a Harm Principle can be examined. Without some sort of general understanding of the nature of “harm” established by some sort of rational dialogue, it becomes a subjective, arbitrary judgment.
Perhaps we can look to Rev. Jill McAllister, in her letter (quoted above) addressing the UUMA controversy, for help with this. She puts forth an analogy that might be considered in seeking to understand this new principle of “harm:”
“we declared, finally, after decades, a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct by ministers. Does this limit the freedom of some ministers? Yes. It limits their “freedom” to harm others. This is a higher priority, finally.”
“Harm,” we are also told is what happens in a “micro-aggression.” And “micro-aggressions” are things like welcoming someone with a marginalized identity too enthusiastically. This was an actual example held up at GA 2019 as a “microaggression.” Is the “harm” from this over-enthusiastic welcoming analogous to “sexual misconduct?” (This, of course, is a heretical question and is “harmful” in itself.)
According to this new overarching Principle “harm” is to be decided entirely by the person who feels they have been “harmed.” It is not open to debate – questioning the victim is another “microaggression.” Asking for clarity, investigating the charge of “harm,” or seeking the input of the “oppressor” who perpetrated the “harm” are also “harms” in themselves. There is no appeal to justice, no seeking for truth, no other examination allowed; if the victim feels “harmed” then they were “harmed” and, as Rev. Jill McAllister states, “we are no longer going to let that go.”
There is a reason images of Lady Justice portray her as blind. Justice must be blind to anything but the evidence and must examine facts with impartiality. She is not swayed by identities of the perpetrator or the victim. They are of secondary importance and should only enter into considerations of justice if that is necessary to get at the truth of the situation, to determine what really happened, beyond a reasonable doubt. Only then is it reasonable to judge who is at fault and what the consequences should be.
Obviously, the new Harm Principle has little to do with justice, or due process, or facts, or evidence, or reason, or logic; in fact, those things are considered oppressions in themselves and are understood as being used by oppressors to “harm” the oppressed. This new Principle presents the opinion that caring about self-proclaimed victims trumps all other principles and is required in an empathetic, caring “beloved community.” Lacking wise discernment and the use of critical faculties it also does not meet the standards for compassion set by the Dalai Lama. Most people do not appreciate being treated as fragile children; they would see that as something other than compassion. Protecting them from “harm” may in itself be harmful, because they are perfectly capable of dealing with emotional distress in a mature fashion.
Along with these very real problems with the “Harm Principle” there is also a darker side to this movement within UUism (and elsewhere). Jonathan Haidt (http://righteousmind.com/where-microaggressions-really-come-from/ ) discusses a study by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, “Microaggression and moral cultures” ( http://www.academia.edu/10541921/Microaggression_and_Moral_Cultures ):
“in the 18th and 19th centuries most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it…this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood which… gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim…it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.”
This “culture of victimhood” is a difficult and dangerous idea to bring up in UU spaces. Ideas like ‘safetyism’ are considered heretical and surrounded by taboos. But there is no denying that there is a transactional power relation in the interactions between those whose status arises from being a “defender of victims” and those whose status arises from being righteous victims. And these power relations can overtake rules about due process established in the general society. Ministers can be excommunicated without due process if they fail to obey the Harm Principle; there is great power in “fragile and aggrieved victims” especially within a liberal religious faith community.
The following is quoted from the UU World, Fall 2018.
“Trustee Christina Rivera, UUA secretary, was hospitalized the evening of April 20 with heart-related issues and was unable to attend the meeting on April 21. Gardner read a statement from Rivera during Saturday’s meeting that said, ‘I’m sitting in my room with a heart muscle damaged by the white supremacy in the U.S. and from Unitarian Universalism. That is the damage that we are asking you to consider.’ Rivera, who was able to return to her Virginia home the following Tuesday, is under a doctor’s care and improving, she said.
“After caucusing in racial identity groups on Saturday, trustees discussed and then affirmed the direction of an amended version of Gardner’s recommendations developed by the caucus of people of color. With Gardner, Mishra-Marzetti, and others emphasizing that the burden of delay is borne by people of color ‘whose lives are being destroyed,’ in Gardner’s words, the board agreed to move quickly on the recommendations, including determining how to influence congregations to deal with white supremacy in their cultures.”
Questions naturally arise about the cause of the damage to Ms. Rivera’s heart: did her doctor determine that it was indeed caused by “white supremacy?” Raising such questions is a delicate and very dangerous thing to do, but what is clear is that her statement was powerful and had a powerful effect upon the UU Board. If white supremacy within UUism has reached such an extent that it is destroying the lives and damaging the heart muscles of people of color then it is an emergency that must and should take priority over all other principles.
If it is not, then those promoting the Harm Principle are causing real and devastating harm to the “beloved community” they claim to care so much about. The intensive promotion of the “Harm Principle” within UUism, and the move to give it the highest priority – above all the other Principles – is a clear indication that the “culture of victimhood” is occupying a central space within the organization. With its arbitrary and subjective definition, it doesn’t allow for wise discernment or the use of critical faculties. It, therefore, cannot be considered compassionate.
All that is left then is that it must be nothing but a quest for power (and money), disguised in “caring” rhetoric.